Corporate communications becomes a critical function when an emergency occurs, as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, clearly illustrated. With phone lines down, and in some cases, with both digital files and paper phone directories out of reach, companies and employees hit the Internet to seek vital information about missing colleagues and to locate available services and assistance.
The problem, unfortunately, was that many companies, specifically smaller enterprises, didn’t have a Web site offering emergency response information and resources. And in a scenario where human resources departments lose physical office space as well as document access, the lack of a clear communication channel only adds unnecessary turmoil.
The value in planning ahead
Matthew Hately, vice president of business development at Canadian software consulting firm Macadamian Technologies, said that a Web site can serve as an extremely valuable method of communication during crisis situations.
“No front desk or human resources department could handle the sheer volume of requests for information even if they were in their offices [during an emergency situation],” Hately said.
Macadamian Technologies developed Syndeo, an enterprise JavaBeans framework, and Hately directs the Syndeo Solutions team that builds custom Web applications for quick deployment of interactive, data-driven Web efforts.
While many firms didn’t have a Web site for broadcasting information during and after the terrorist attacks, it was obvious many did turn to Web teams for help. The FBI created a hot link button on its Internet Fraud Complaint Center home page for reporting terrorist activity and tips related to the disaster. The site had drawn 78,000 tips worldwide within one week and was cited by federal officials as extremely valuable in the investigation.
“Companies reacted on gut instinct," Hately said. "They needed to get information to their employees and partners quickly, and they have at their disposal a communications outlet that can reach thousands, simultaneously, in real time. They are accustomed to using their site to broadcast news such as financial results and new product launches, so I think it made sense that this was the best way to get this info out quickly."
Today, all companies are painfully aware of the crucial role the Web plays in employee communication, particularly in times of crisis, and experts recommend mapping out an emergency response Web site as part of standard business continuity planning.
Creating an emergency response site
Led by the human resources department, the project requires both corporate support and IT’s assistance. For content development, the HR department needs to provide most of the information to the Web team, such as lists of employees, news about the crisis, and important contact information for needs such as grief counseling.
For the IT team, a critical element in an emergency Web site plan is reviewing the location of the company’s Web server and considering redundancy in the event that the primary server location is damaged. While Web servers are often located off-site in a data warehouse or at a services provider’s site, redundancy and data protection is an issue to review before an emergency occurs.
“I think IT teams may be thinking more about the possibility that their servers need to be geographically redundant—to have server farms in more than one location,” Hately said.
Implementing quick Web-team response is another component that requires consideration.
“Some Web teams, certainly in the media arena, are used to reacting in real time, and they know what they need to do to react to emergencies and changes [in Web traffic],” said Hately, pointing out that CNN.com's site developers reacted within an hour to very heavy traffic and slow response times by posting static, lightweight pages.
At MSNBC.com, system administrators faced a tremendous traffic surge—10 times the normal volume—shortly after the New York City attack, with 300,000 to 400,000 users logged on at a given time. In response, the site team stripped graphics, video, and interactive content to lighten the pages. Admins also added several more Web servers as well as farming the server load to outside providers.
During the recent tragedy, many WTC tenants redrafted corporate Web sites completely, using front pages of their corporate sites to post information on employees and relief funds.
Clearly, though, it would have been much more efficient for the companies, and more helpful to employees and families, to have sites already on hand to push forward when needed.
Design is a key element in effectiveness
In terms of site design, developers need to keep the user—and the various emergency scenarios, such as fire and other serious catastrophes—in mind. Developers recommend minimizing the number of levels—i.e., clicks—needed to access information. As much info as possible should be provided on the front page in a clear and clean manner.
The site should be quick to load and lightweight to handle unexpected traffic spikes. It should also be accessible to users with low-bandwidth connections or to users who have mobile devices.
Content must be up to date, and the tone should be compassionate, Hately said.
In addition to providing the current status of employees, relocation news, assistance contact information, and referrals, emergency sites should also include news on the emergency, messages from the executive team, and a secure Web discussion and chat area where employees can share information as well as console and grieve if needed. As Hately points out, many large enterprises already offer the chat feature on their intranet or extranets, so a secure quick link could be placed on the public site to provide these features. In fact, many companies likely have all the required elements for an emergency Web response site in-house and just need to pull it all together and establish a plan for how to use each element. These resources can include content writers, Web developers, HR, discussion servers, and extra bandwidth, Hately said.
“The question then becomes how quickly will the company react, and how much space on their corporate site and how many resources will they devote to making sure that they get emergency information,” he said.
How have the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks affected your continuity planning?
Are you including plans for an emergency Web site in your disaster planning? Have you taken another look at the redundancy of your Web servers to account for potential downtime at one location? Tell us how you are revising or expanding your disaster plan.